Assessing Competing Perspectives: A Critical Analysis of Guyana's National Grade Six Assessment.

AuthorLondon, Trevin


Originally a Dutch colony in the 17th century, by 1815 Guyana had become a British possession. The abolition of slavery led to settlement of urban areas by the former enslaved population from Africa (30.2%) and the importation of indentured servants from India (39.8%) to work the sugar plantations (10.5% indigenous population), together comprising about three quarters of Guyana's population. In 1966 Guyana achieved independence from the UK, and since then it has been ruled mostly by socialist-oriented governments. Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America and shares cultural and historical bonds with the Anglophone Caribbean. About one-third of the Guyanese population lives below the poverty line; indigenous people are disproportionately affected. Guyana's literacy rate is reported to be among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, the level of functional literacy, however, it is considerably lower, which has been attributed to poor education quality, teacher training, and infrastructure.

Thus, a number of competing perspectives on the National Grade Six Assessment in Guyana and its implementation has created an achievement gap between children that attend private schools and children that attend public schools. To systematize the analysis of these perspectives, the discussion will thematically be presented in three parts: (1) Historical Context of the National Grade Six Assessment, Public and Private Schools and the Extra-Lessons Syndrome, and the Achievement Gap; (2) Theoretical Implications; and (3) Conclusions. Before presenting the analysis of the findings, it is important to discuss in the reminder of this section the importance of the assessment and the critical analytical approach that undergirds this essay.

The National Grade Six Assessment (NGSA) highlights some of the issues in the education system in Guyana. The assessment is a high stakes examination that is used as a tracking tool for students transitioning from the primary schools to the secondary schools. Students that did not score the required marks for entry into the top secondary schools are regulated to schools that focus more on the vocational aspect of education (Ishmael, 2012). Parents, cognizant of the importance of the examination as a tracking tool wanted to give their children a competitive edge over the other children taking the exam. Parents, on the one hand, began to pressure teachers that had good success rates on the examination to give private tutoring to their children. Teachers, on the other hand faced with economic difficulties and low salaries began to charge fees to tutor students for the NGSA (Ministry of Education, 2004, 2009). Consequently, an inequitable pattern emerged, families that can afford the cost of tutoring and/or private schools would choose that option; low income families that cannot provide or do not have the resources to pay for extra lessons and/or private schools risk the possibility of their children becoming educationally disadvantaged. This systemic issue has created an achievement gap between children of affluent parents and children of low income parents.

It behooves me to briefly state what critical analysis approach is before proceeding with the interrogation of the competing perspectives, since it is the technique that is employed to ground the examination that follows. Critical analysis necessitates the establishment of a sound comprehension of the various perspectives on a topic. This is accomplished by pinpointing and elucidating the viewpoints of the authors and furnishing the contretemps deduced from their arguments. This calls for the analysis to assess the distinctiveness, discernibleness, suggestiveness, and theoretical merits of the studied works.

Historical Context of the National Grade Six Assessment, Public and Private Schools and the Extra-Lessons Syndrome, and the Achievement Gap

The analysis on this theme focuses on the exam that preceded the National Grade Six Assessment in Guyana, which was first introduced in Great Britain in 1944, and it was called the Common Entrance Exam (Barrow, 2012). The test was used throughout the United Kingdom, but currently it is only used in a few counties and boroughs. Dorian Barrow (2012) considered it a high-stakes test that was an effective method to select the educational track of children. England terminated the exam in 1976 because of the strong bias in the exam favoring middle-class and upper class households.

According to Donald Lemke (1975), universal primary education had a strong bias in the colonial policies of the English-speaking Caribbean and Central and South America. Most of the children attended primary school from age five to 12. Children from eight to 12 had close to 100% attendance because of the strong emphasis placed on formal education in the region. Primary schools in the region had the effect of integrating children from low-income families with children from affluent families. Parents are aware that primary school education is where the basic aptitude and knowledge are acquired, laying the foundation for all future learning. Lemke (1975) continued by stating that secondary schools, on the other hand, were developed to fill a specific need, which is to prepare students to attend universities in foreign countries. The secondary schools at that time were private and attracted students from the middle and upper socio-economic classes. The issue at that time, therefore, was to find a selection process for students entering the secondary school system that would provide equity for all students.

To this end, the former British colonial countries in the English-speaking Caribbean and Central and South America adopted the Common Entrance Exam as a selection process for students to attend secondary schools. The Common Entrance Examination was introduced in Jamaica, in 1957 (Higgins, 2015). Garfield Higgins (2015) states that the exam was introduced because each secondary school used to hold its own entrance examination and parents with the necessary income would pay to get their children into certain schools, regardless of their grades on the exam.

The original intent of Common Entrance Exam was to select students based on merit. Henry (2012) agrees with Higgins that prior to 1958, the majority of high school students had to pay fees and they were children of affluent parents, only a handful of scholarships were available for children of low income parents that were talented.

Other countries in the English-speaking Caribbean and Central and South America gradually adopted the Common Entrance Exam in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a selection process for students to gain access into secondary schools. Corinne Barnes (2014) stated that for 57 years the Common Entrance Exam was used to decide the academic tracks of students. It was an accepted fact that students who did well on the exam were guaranteed a place in one of the top prestigious schools. The students were under a lot of stress to perform well on the exam. Barnes (2014) also stated that a 12-year-old boy in Jamaica committed suicide because he did not score well on the exam. There were also incidents of students that dropped out of school because of their inability to perform well on the exam. The population was therefore asking for new criteria to assess children's academic abilities for secondary schools.

As a result, countries in the region gradually began to replace the Common Entrance Exam with their own forms of assessment that were related to the norms and cultures of the communities. Jamaica replaced the exam with the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) as an instrument to bring equity to the admissions of students to secondary schools. The GSAT was criticized because it placed an unreasonable burden and stress on grade six students and because students had to remember material that they had learned in grades three and four. On the positive side, the Ministry of Education in Jamaica found that the old system placed 30% of the 50,000 students that took the exam into secondary schools. In one year, GSAT placed 42,000 children into secondary schools (Higgins, 2015; Barnes, 2014, Henry, 2012). Currently, Jamaica is analyzing options to replace the GSAT with the Primary Exit Profile Exam in 2017 (Higgins, 2015).

Trinidad and Tobago retained the exam as a placement tool for students entering secondary schools, but renamed it Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA). Barbados changed the Common Entrance Exam to Secondary School Entrance Examination (SSEE) (De Lisle, 2012). The objective was to achieve a strategic alignment with the local norms and cultures. According to Dorian Barrow (2012), Belize adopted a new examination to replace the Common Entrance Exam and it was called the Primary School Exam (PSE). The admission policies to secondary schools were no longer based on a single standardized test. The admission policies were changed to three criteria (1) a cut off score on the PSE, (2) positive evaluation of the applicants' primary school transcripts, (3) a written recommendation from the primary school principal or his/her designee analyzing the students' abilities to function at the secondary school level. This method gave the students more opportunities for success rather than relying on a single high-stakes test. Guyana also changed the Common Entrance Exam to Secondary School Entrance Exam and finally to National Grade Six Assessment.

The changes in the exam in the region were made to align the test with the social and cultural norms of the individual countries. Although changes were made, the exam continued to be an important part of a selection process for secondary schools. A high score on the exam would guarantee a place for a child in one of the top secondary schools in the country (Barrow, 2012). Parents are aware that the scores acquired on the exam will determine their children's access to...

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